READING, PA – I seldom make it through a day without someone reminding me that Reading was once the “poorest city in the United States” (it was also once among the richest) or citing an obscure crime statistic from 2005.
This portrait of a struggling region has become a staple of fundraising appeals, political speeches, and, of course, meetings.
I am pleading with everyone to stop. Just. Stop.
Trotting out statistics that are a decade or more old (the poverty numbers were from 2011) makes it sound like we’re not keeping up with our reading.
The picture of the Greater Reading area as being in decline is nonsense, it’s out of date, and it’s counterproductive.
We are a center of burgeoning innovation and education in health care. Last year, Reading Hospital performed the county’s first liver transplant. Tower Health, in partnership with Drexel University, is building a new medical college in West Reading adjacent to the recently redeveloped VF complex. Before the pandemic, new restaurants were opening in Downtown Reading and, as part of its Reading CollegeTowne initiative, Alvernia University’s decision to start a new School of Engineering and move its School of Business to downtown was the kind of economic shot in the arm that most places only dream about.
Alvernia’s initiative has led directly or indirectly to a plan to redevelop the Madison and Berkshire hotels into downtown housing. Shuman Development Group is redeveloping the former Meridian Bank building at 6th and Washington Streets into a multi-tenant commercial building and they’re transforming the Medical Arts Building into housing. There’s even a plan to redevelop the Reading Eagle Company building to capitalize on its proximity to the new Alvernia campus.
There’s a good chance that passenger rail between Philadelphia and Reading will resume in this decade, bringing an enormous shot of economic energy.
The growing prosperity of our area is reflected in the economic conditions of our families. Recent Census numbers showed that average household income in Berks County increased 20% between 2015 and 2019, from $56,122 to $67,708.
In Reading, the numbers showed a shocking level of improvement during that period. Average household income increased 50%, from $26,531 to $39,670.
At the same time, the percentage of people in Reading who are living in poverty fell from 38.8 percent to 24.7 percent.
A lot of effort has gone into bending the trends that affected our area. We should be celebrating our growing success and identifying how to accelerate it instead of focusing on ancient news. It’s not just wrong; it’s not helpful. Nothing attracts success like success. “Woe is us” is not an effective strategy for attracting new resources when the story and the picture don’t line up.
At Berks County Community Foundation, we don’t see ourselves as Berks County’s cheerleaders. Our job is to find ways to improve the community and work on them. But it’s also our job to tell the truth. And an increasingly poor, crime ridden, downtrodden community is not our truth. Not today.
So let’s all agree to stop it.
Kevin K. Murphy, President
Berks County Community Foundation